Edging as close to the conventional pop realm as they have in their 20-plus years, R.E.M. will release Reveal, an evocative tapestry of reflective, expertly crafted songs, in May.
"We're really interested in finding the beauty of music these days," said bassist Mike Mills, who clarified that the rock band's 12th studio album isn't quite as subdued as it may seem. "Taking a song and seeing how you can find something really lovely inside it, I think that might tend to make it sound a little more introspective than it really is."
Although his lyrics are only slightly less opaque than usual on Reveal, which is due May 15 and is the group's first release since its 1999 score work for "Man on the Moon," singer Michael Stipe was also intent on making the record as easily lovable as possible.
"I worked hard to squeeze as much melody as I could into every song," he said.
And, perhaps as a reaction to the uneven nature of 1998's Up, an attempt was made to produce a smoothly flowing whole on Reveal.
"I like it when I find an album I can put on and leave on through dinner or through a party," Stipe explained. "So I kind of consciously tried to steer stuff toward something that was cohesive from beginning to end, as a piece."
"The Lifting," for example, opens the album with a lush, densely harmonic, and at times discordant, emotional purge. It's followed by the minimal, electronic-effects-laden "I've Been High," a tender soul-searcher whose starkness is echoed throughout on tracks such as "Saturn Return" and "Disappear." A sort of Beach Boys jangle creeps in elsewhere, especially on the bittersweet "Beat a Drum" and the beach-blanket snapshot "Summer Turns to High."
The album's first single is the rousing "Imitation of Life," whose deep guitar riff harkens back to "The One I Love," the band's breakout hit from 1987's Document. Equally rousing, if tinged with sadness, is the strings-heavy coda of "I'll Take the Rain."
An "Imitation of Life" video was directed by Garth Jennings, who has also lensed clips for Badly Drawn Boy ("Disillusion") and Fatboy Slim ("Demons"). Filmed in a valley west of Los Angeles, the entire shoot lasted 20 seconds and included 75 cast members, plus one monkey, according to Stipe, who refused to reveal further details.
"I got to costar with a monkey," said guitarist Peter Buck, "and I must admit I was out-acted by about 10 to 1."
Reveal was produced, like Up, by Pat McCarthy, with additional playing by Posies guitarist Ken Stringfellow, multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5) and drummer Joey Waronker. The latter three toured with the band on the Up world tour, and were integral to the new album's recording, according to Buck.
"We toured last summer and all six of us that played together ... it felt like a group," he said. "For this record, that was kinda what we were going for."
Waronker, though not a member of the band, is the only drummer on Reveal, and most of the machine-like drum sounds are looped samples of his studio playing, Buck said.
The departure in 1997 of original R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry, who Stipe said is "a great musician and a great friend," still affects the trio musically. Whereas Up seemed adrift at times without his rhythmic anchor and with drum machines often in his place Reveal finds a band at peace, and evolving, without him.
"When he decided to leave the band, it was musically somewhat liberating for all of us," Stipe said, guardedly. "I think the last two records we've made are a lot closer musically to where we are in terms of what we listen to and what we're inspired by."
Now all in their 40s Stipe is 41; Mills, 42; Buck, 44 R.E.M. have also apparently moved on from the concept of grueling world tours. With globetrotting schedules and enough side projects to keep them busy Buck, for example, is now on tour with the Minus 5, and Stipe's Single Cell film company produced 1999's "Being John Malkovich" the band is a far cry from its 1980 inception as four University of Georgia undergrads.
"We're kind of at the age where we're more interested in the creative aspect of it," Buck said of touring, though he was vague about any specific plans to play live. "We'll be out doing things. There will be some sort of performance somewhere of some nature."